Chinese Create the Eight-Legged Essay

This poetic essay form with its rigid structure of parallelism and character count became the mainstay of the Chinese examination system and was ultimately blamed for stultifying Chinese thought.

Summary of Event

China has a long history of emphasizing scholarship and excellence in literary achievement, dating back to the earliest roots of Confucian thought. The Confucian principle that the people would be ruled best by the erudite and wise inspired the creation of the Chinese civil service system, which was first developed in the Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.). This system involved a series of examinations that selected individuals worthy of government employment. The examinations were intended to be a forum in which the candidates could demonstrate their knowledge of the Confucian Confucius classics (works written or compiled by Confucius and his followers) and of history as well as their ability to apply that body of knowledge to general philosophical principles and to specific political issues. [kw]Chinese Create the Eight-Legged Essay (1387)
[kw]Eight-Legged Essay, Chinese Create the (1387)
Examinations, Chinese civil service
China;1387: Chinese Create the Eight-Legged Essay[2990]
Education;1387: Chinese Create the Eight-Legged Essay[2990]

These examinations were exceedingly rigorous and required lengthy periods of preparation, which effectively restricted them to those persons who could afford a lengthy period of nonproductive study, although, in theory, the examinations were open to all. A candidate had to pass through a series of examinations, starting at the local level and progressing to district, provincial, and palace examinations. Examinations were held every three years, and successfully passing them entitled the applicant to several privileges, including exemption from corporal punishment and from certain feudal labor taxes, effectively making the scholars members of the lower gentry. Obtaining a civil service position generally required passing the provincial level exam, which required enough study that it was unlikely for a candidate to pass it before the age of thirty, and the higher levels of examinations that qualified a person for higher-level positions often could not be passed except by elderly and particularly accomplished scholars. The emperor himself might well read and grade the examination essays of candidates for the highest ministerial posts.

As the centuries passed, the prescribed forms in which candidates were expected to phrase their responses to the examinations grew increasingly rigid. This rigidity reached its height after the end of the Mongol occupation around 1387, with the development of the bagu wen, or eight-legged essay, which would form the principal mode of composition throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (Ch’ing; 1644-1911) Dynasties. The term “eight-legged essay” is derived from the eight major parts of the essay: the presentation, amplification, preliminary exposition, initial argument, inceptive paragraphs, middle paragraphs, rear paragraphs, and concluding paragraphs. The fifth through eighth parts were expected to be constructed of two “legs,” that is, two antithetical paragraphs in perfect balance. (By contrast, most Western essay formats are tripartite—introduction, body, and conclusion.)

The eight-legged essay was constructed on principles of strict parallelism, to the point that each portion of it was to contain a precise number of characters, and the entirety was expected to follow certain schemes of contrasting tonal patterns when read aloud. A properly written eight-legged essay thus consisted of pairs of columns of characters (Chinese was traditionally written from top to bottom, rather than across the page), in which each paragraph responded to the other, word for word, phrase for phrase, sentence for sentence, all perfectly balanced in both concept and tonal quality. In many ways, the eight-legged essay was more like some of the stricter forms of verse than the prose forms that most Westerners would connect with the term “essay.”

Because of this rigid structural requirement, it soon became easier for candidates to concentrate on the outward form of the essay to the exclusion of all content. Writing a proper eight-legged essay was reduced to a game of juggling words, and all pretense of genuinely analyzing the Confucian Classics or relating them to contemporary political issues was lost. The effect of this stylized form of writing examination responses was ultimately the repression of creative thought, and as a result, the officials produced by these examinations lost the ability to respond flexibly to new problems in a changing Chinese society. However intelligent or well-trained the resultant scholars might have been, all their intellectual energies had been so completely trained in the Classics that they became backward-looking, unable to move beyond traditional answers to find solutions to the new problems facing China.

It is possible to express original thought within the rigid form of the eight-legged essay, just as it is within the strict verse form of a sonnet. A true master of the form could use the eight-legged essay to develop creative ideas just as the English bard William Shakespeare wrote sonnets whose literary power has awed readers for centuries. The problem arose because candidates for civil service were more reliably rewarded for strict adherence to outward form over the production of any real content, so much so that the eight-legged essay became an exercise in producing empty verbage. Translations of award-winning examination essays into English often reveal a shocking lack of content, with words just going around in circles without forming any logical argument. As a result of this misplaced emphasis on form over content, the eight-legged essay became the frequent target of satirists such as Wu Jingzi (Wu Ching-tzu; 1701-1754), whose novel Ru lin wai shi (eighteenth century; The Scholars, 1957) mocked the endless efforts to write the perfect eight-legged essay.


The eight-legged essay form became so firmly entrenched in Chinese composition that the term appears even in Communist discourse, although often as a term of opprobrium for a person who mindlessly spouts official catchphrases. Although the eight-legged essay was originally intended to show that scholars had mastered formal organization, it decayed into a test of would-be scholars’s ability to plug the appropriate clichés into the proper places. By the nineteenth century, the problem had become so severe that there were strong calls for the abolition of the eight-legged essay as a practice that hindered China’s ability to adapt to change and thus reinforced its backwardness. During the Hundred Days Reform of 1898, the eight-legged essay was supposed to be abolished, but its use was not fully set aside until 1901. It can be argued that the modern Chinese university entrance examination is a descendent of the old imperial Chinese civil service examination system.

Further Reading

  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, ed. Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press, 1981. A useful overview on Chinese history from ancient times to the present, including excellent bibliographies to help find more in-depth information.
  • Elman, Benjamin A. A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. An extensive study of the civil examination system as a cultural fixture of imperial China and the social consequences it created.
  • Lee, Thomas H. C. Education in Traditional China: A History. Boston: Brill, 2000. A history of the development of education in ancient China, and of the importance of the imperial civil service examination system in shaping the curriculum and teaching methods.
  • Mao Zedong. Oppose the Party “Eight-Legged Essay.” Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1960. This speech by the leader of the Chinese Revolution, in which he attacks what he perceives as persistent backwardness, shows how deeply the concept of the eight-legged essay as a fixed form of expression had penetrated into Chinese culture.
  • Miyazaki, Ichisada. China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China. Translated by Conrad Schirokauer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A study of the form and problems of the civil service examinations as they reached their peak of complexity in the Qing Dynasty but with references to their historical development. The system is specifically compared and contrasted with the modern Japanese experience of “examination hell,” the intensive examinations at the end of secondary schooling that can make or break a person’s career.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. A basic overview of Chinese history. Outlines the cultural matrix in which the imperial civil examination and the eight-legged essay developed and how they in turn affected the culture and society.